Is Paul Ryan Too White for the GOP?

Originally published November 22, 2012

Paul Ryan was a rising Republican star and a 2016 hopeful. But his brief run with Romney may have done him more harm than good, writes David Freedlander.

After Mitt Romney disparaged 47 percent of American society in a supposedly private setting among his wealthiest donors, top Republican officials nearly tripped over themselves to create distance from the former nominee.

Chief among those rushing to condemn the remarks were people positioning themselves to be the party’s standard bearers in 2016.

“Completely unhelpful” scoffed Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

“Divisive,” added New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

“That unfortunately is what sets us back as a party,” chimed in New Mexico governor Barbara Martinez.

But if there was one person who really wanted Mitt Romney to please stop talking, it was probably former running mate Paul Ryan.

The Wisconsin congressman is himself at the top of short lists for 2016. A number of pundits suggested that the reason Ryan was picked this year was so the party could set itself up for the race four years from now, when presumably the GOP rank-and-file would at last be frothing for the kind of budget-cutting austerity that its donor class has long called for and that Ryan has proposed.

But instead of a call to follow-up the devastating losses of this November with a strict return to conservative principles, the loudest voices in the GOP have been calling for a party more modern, moderate, and inclusive.

And Governor Romney describing the “gifts” that the Obama administration ladled out to supposed interest groups has only convinced many in the GOP that they need to move on from 2012 as quickly as possible, a taint that for now includes Rep. Ryan.

“It’s going to be very hard now to put up Mitt Romney’s running mate,” said one major donor to the Romney campaign who was on the controversial call last week. “It’s a shame. Paul is really a stand-up guy. And he’s still a young guy, and he’s got a great future ahead of him, but after last Tuesday, after the call, I don’t see how we pick a white guy from Wisconsin.”

Ryan didn’t do himself any favors, either, when he repeatedly blamed the ticket’s loss on high turnout in “urban areas,” an insight which, racial dog whistles aside, isn’t even accurate, and certainly isn’t something a would-be nominee hoping to broaden the party’s appeal should be saying.

“Let’s face it, Sarah Palin did more to broaden the party than Paul Ryan did,” said Vincent Harris, a GOP digital-media guru who nonetheless suggested that the congressman was the front-runner for 2016. “Paul Ryan could look like one of Mitt Romney’s sons.”

Harris suggested that another reason why Ryan may find himself out of synch with the party’s mood goes beyond demographics: his cerebral, wonkish reputation.

“A lot of the more socially conservative, Tea Party voters are going to need to hear certain rhetoric from the congressman—ripping up the president and taking it to Hillary Clinton and talking about the rise of socialism in this country. Paul Ryan is a thinker,” he said.

Going from a losing vice-presidential candidacy to a making a serious run at the top slot has historically been a tough road. Witness John Edwards in 2008, or Joe Lieberman in 2004, or even Dan Quayle in 2000. And Ryan didn’t exactly set the nation on fire as even a flawed candidate like Sarah Palin did during the last election cycle.

“There was a lot of hype in the first couple of days, but he was a non-presence. He was not a national voice. He didn’t change the equation at all,” said Sean Foreman, a professor of political science at Barry University in Florida. “He didn’t carry Wisconsin, they lost all over the Midwest. They lost the presidential vote in his home district! Electorally he was a bust. He is risk of being one of the dinosaurs of the Republican Party at age 42.”

In the short term, Ryan finds himself in perhaps the trickiest spot of all the 2016 hopefuls. He is the only Republican who can’t really distance himself from Mitt Romney—just witness his silence on Romney’s “gifts” comments (his office didn’t reply to an inquiry from The Daily Beast about whether or not he agrees with Romney on this one.) He can’t join in the pile-on taking place now in GOP circles over the misdirection of the 2012 campaign. Plus, he has a messy situation in Congress to navigate. The Republican majority’s austere budget bears his name. If the GOP fails to come to an agreement with President Obama over taxes and spending and the nation falls over the fiscal cliff, Ryan will likely get a large share of the blame. If Ryan does bend, he risks looking like another weak-willed politico to the Tea Party faithful.

“Voters do not react well to someone who comes across as a green-eyeshade conservative,” said Jim Broussard, a professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania and the chairman of a local antitax group there. “Anybody who talks about reining in spending has to make sure that they don’t just come across as a fiscal steward and not as someone who is concerned about people.”

Then there is the matter of whether or not Ryan actually wants to run for higher office. He has twice now turned down overtures from Badger State GOP officials to run for the Senate, and has brushed aside calls to run for the governorship in 2010 and the presidency this year. Yes, he accepted Romney’s offer to run for vice president, but, as Matt Mackowiak, a GOP operative, noted, “It’s one thing to run for vice president for three months, when you are drafted into service and there is an existing infrastructure in place. Running for president is a multiple-year process. I don’t know if that is something he wants to do.”